Our laboratory has established that local activation of calpain by a transient elevation of the free intracellular calcium concentration is crucial for the induction of growth cone (GC) formation in cultured Aplysia neurons. The mechanisms and stages in which calpain is involved in the formation of a GC are not known. We began to study these questions by determining the nature of calpain's action and the stages in which calpain activity affects the cascade of events that leads to the formation of the GC and its extension. We report that the calpain-dependent transformation of an axonal segment into a GC occurs within a narrow window of opportunity that lasts approximately 5 min. If calpain is inhibited during this window of opportunity, GC formation does not occur. Inhibition of calpain after the window of opportunity slows down the rate of lamellipodial extension but doesn't arrest it. The proteolysis of spectrin, a calpain substrate and a major component of the membrane skeleton, occurs within this window of opportunity, in agreement with the hypothesis that spectrin proteolysis is an early step in the formation of the GC. If the onset of proteolysis is deferred, spectrin remains unchanged and GC formation is compromised. We suggest that calpain participates in two different processes: it is critical for the triggering of GC formation and plays a modulatory role during the extension of the GC's lamellipodia.